It was a great reading year for me. The vast majority of the 63 books I read in 2018 were excellent, beautifully written, and/or just plain fun — and this could potentially be a much longer list, if I were to include every book that I enjoyed reading last year.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emzi
Connected to gods and spirit, Ada navigates her life with a sense of fractured self. Emzi’s debut novel is stunning from top to bottom. Ada’s story is heart wrenching. The writing is lush, vivid, and lyrical. It’s the kind of writing to sink into and get lost in. This book haunts me in the best of ways. (Full review.)
I read a total of 57 books in 2016, far lower than usual, but it was a particularly busy year for me in regards to writing and other projects. Nevertheless, there were many great reads this year, so many that I would not be able to narrow them all down to just a few. So, here are my favorite reads, all categorized, because that’s how I roll.
Best Science Fiction Novel
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. The more I read Connie Willis’ work, the more I admire her as an author. Doomsday Book was no exception. Set in Oxford—at a university in which historians are able to actually travel back in time to witness and experience the past eras they research—the story is split between Kivrin, who travels to the Middle Ages (one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history), and Dunworthy, her mentor who is terrified to see her go and is left to face his own crisis in the present day as a sudden influenza outbreak flares up, forcing Oxford to go into quarantine. Dealing with disease as it does, it’s a dark story, although it is laced with Willis’ wit and humor. I especially loved Kivrin’s journey to the Middle Ages and fell in love (as Kivrin does) with the family that takes her in. A fantastic book, one that had me itching to read more in Willis’ time travel series.
1. Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
2. The Arrival by Shaun Tan
3. Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
4. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
5. Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina
6. Ringworld by Larry Niven
7. Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler
The Ballad of Black Tom is a fitting tribute to H.P. Lovecraft. It’s a novella that draws up the doom-ridden horror of the elder gods, while also addressing the unsettling prejudice of Lovecraft’s writing. “I grew up worshipping the guy so this issue felt quite personal to me,” explained Victor LaValle. “I wanted to write a story set in the Lovecraftian universe that didn’t gloss over the uglier implications of his worldview.”
The story centers around Tommy Tester, a young black man in 1920s Harlem. In order to avoid the hard life his father led as a laborer, Tommy turns to hustling in order to make his living. He has learned to disguise himself, donning a suit, a guitar case, and a shuffling step to mask himself against the watchful eyes white folks and the cops, who might see him as threatening otherwise. He knows how to put on a bit of theater and draw in a certain subset of clientele. But after he delivers an occult tome (with a page conveniently missing) to a reclusive sorceress in Queens, he earns her wrath, which brings destruction down on him and leads him into awakening powers best left sleeping.
Racism serves as an ever present backdrop, a constant shadow laid across the vivid descriptions of Harlem and other regions of New York that make their appearance. This racism takes several forms, both subtle and overt, from the cops who hassle him and steal his money to the patronizing rich white man who promises “salvation” for the downtrodden. Some of these moments are eerily familiar to current events. This is an intricate part of what makes this story so horrifying. If the world is so hateful, then how can ancient, powerful, and indifferent beings be any worse? Thus, Tom’s descent into darkness is frightening, blood soaked, and to a certain extent understandable.
The Ballad of Black Tom is fast read and a brilliant horror story.